Your Copyright Responsibility As a Citizen

We have been extraordinarily busy lately, and therefore have yet to write on important issues like the Amazon Kindle situation. Yet, we felt compelled to write this entry after two occurrences over the past four days.

In the first situation, several of the participants thanked us for leading a recent copyright training session. While doing so, many participants commented they felt our education session was useful because it was the first session they ever had attended in which the session leader actually required them to read relevant portions of the Copyright Act of 1976. It is hard to fathom how one could teach copyright without reviewing the statute. In fact, we never write a post here on Copycense without having a browser tab open to the U.S. Copyright Office’s official version of the law.

In the second situation, we were reviewing our sources, first comments to a copyright-related Techdirt post; then a post from Ben Sheffner, the editor of the Copyrights & Campaigns blog. Sheffner, who has done a fine and professional job covering the Jammie Thomas-Rasset and Joel Tenenbaum copyright infringement trials, opened his post by writing the following:

On the Internet, (almost) everyone hates copyright. In fact that’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Every day, for years, I would read about how copyright is stupid, outmoded, destructive, and downright evil. But I knew that the ‘law’ I would read about bore scant resemblance to the actual law, and the way that businesses that earn revenue from production and exploitation of copyrighted works actually function. And I knew that not everyone harbored such vitriol and venom for the copyright owners, who routinely win major victories in the courts and the political arena.

After these two incidents, we thought that one reason so much misinformation (and even disinformation) exists about copyright is because too few ever have actually read the statute.

We’ve one simple suggestion for everyone with skin in the copyright game: read the law. Actually READ it. Do not rely on anyone else’s interpretation or take on what the statute says — even ours.

And make no mistake: the Copyright Act of 1976 is horribly written. It’s torturously complex. It is (in many places) nonsensical and even contradictory. Arguably, it reflects the wishes of only a certain set of actors. But is the law we have in the United States that governs “original works of authorship fixed in [a] tangible medium of expression …”

Reasonable people can reasonably disagree on interpretations, value systems, theories, even history. Ben Sheffner’s perspective on a given copyright issue in Copyrights & Campaigns likely is fundamentally different than the point of view we at Copycense would take on the same issue. (For one, we do not hate copyright. Quite the opposite, actually, and we’ve been writing about copyright online for five years; educating about it for 10; and involved with it for more three decades. It is our respect for, and love of, the copyright system that makes us wretch at the abuses of people like Joel Tenenbaum and Jammie Thomas-Rasset.)

Further, Sheffner likely subscribes to a property-based theory of copyright law and will point to evidence that supports his view. In contrast, we believe the property-based theory of copyright is incorrect and can point to scholarship that demonstrates property never has played a substantive or legal role in this country’s copyright history.

But you know what? It’s all good. It’s a free country.

Yet we believe we and Sheffner can agree on this narrow concept: there are entirely too many folks opining or writing about copyright issues who have not spent any significant time reading the statute. Some folks are what William Patry might call “the crazies,” who rail about copyright online without any shred of evidence, study, or proof. Still others are folks like Mark Helprin, a respectable writer of some fame in some literary quarters, whose book Digital Barbarism shows absolutely no evidence that the author has spent any time reading the statute or reading about the law itself.

And journalists from the most respected news publications can be the absolute worst, routinely getting wrong the most basic issues in coverage of critically important copyright issues, policy, or cases. (Again, Sheffner — thankfully — has distinguished himself as an exception to this unfortunate trend.)

So let us make it clear as Caribbean water: if you are affected by copyright, you absolutely MUST read the Copyright Act of 1976. And arguably every American citizen now is affected by copyright: YouTube takedowns, the Kindle controversy, and the mere inability to skip your DVD’s ominous FBI copyright warning are simple, common examples that illustrate that in the 21st century, copyright is as much a citizen’s issue as it is a corporate or trade issue.

You may not fully understand the Copyright Act, but if you can read at all, there is no excuse for you not to read the statute. It is part of your duty as a citizen to read the Copyright Act and to have some idea about what it says.

Our next few posts we be devoted to facilitating how best to read and make sense of this complex, but important statute.

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Written by Copycense Editorial

08/07/2009 at 12:30

Posted in Uncategorized

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